Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Archaeology and the paradigm shift from Antiquity to Deep Time

    “Half a century ago, man’s past was supposed to include less than six thousand years; now the story is seen to stretch back hundreds of thousands of years.” So wrote the early 20th century historian James Robinson about a perceived ‘paradigm shift’ in universal history and archaeology. A ‘paradigm’ is an explanatory framework that makes sense of a given set of observations, and that is founded upon certain basic assumptions.  This article has three main objectives:

  • To describe the paradigm behind early-phase archaeology
  • To explain the 19th-20th century shift in western historical tradition
  • To critically evaluate the dominant 21st century paradigm


   Archaeology has been a popular pastime among art collectors for many thousands of years, but it was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that a standard scientific methodology was developed in Europe. The archaeologist of today is a historian who is not limited to the written word but goes further and carefully digs out evidence of the remains and relics of ancient peoples to prepare them for scientific publication.
   The early 16th century saw a resurgence of interest arise in ancient artefacts and manuscripts as part of the wider European Renaissance and Reformation. The Vatican began collecting artefacts in AD 1505, whilst antiquaries such as John Leland and William Camden began surveying megalithic monuments for publication. Historians of the age based their conclusions regarding the human past upon a significant corpus of over one thousand texts written by approximately eighty authors from classical and ancient times. These included authorities such as Pliny and Isidore of Seville. Others were geographers, for example Pomponius Mela and Ptolemy, whose knowledge of ancient place names could be used to discover the founding ancestors of cities. Still others were focused upon recounting historical events to as far remote (in some cases) as 2100 BC. These included early historians such as Livy, Plutarch, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Berosus, Diodorus Siculus, Sanchoniathon, Appian, Herodotus, Sallust, Josephus, Eusebius, Valerius Maximus and Rufus. All these well respected authorities took centre-stage within a long-established academic tradition, together with one special source – the Judeo-Christian Tanakh (Old Testament) – widely regarded as sacred.  (Smail, 2008 and Stringer, 2006).
   Geologically, the paradigm of early historians and archaeologists included a universal cataclysm which had destroyed almost all traces of world civilization at some point in the mid-third millennium B.C. Historically, since then, there had been five distinct ages within recorded memory. The Greek scholar Hesiod classified these ‘ages’ under the headings: golden (~2600 – 1680 B.C.), silver (~1680 – 1350 B.C.), bronze (~1350 – 1130 B.C.), heroic (~1130 – 810 B.C.) and iron (~810 B.C. onwards). Sociologically and biogeographically, the paradigm incorporated a West-Asian radiation model of just one patristic people group from the hills of south-eastern Turkey. This diffusionist model presented the rapid stratification of surviving humanity by cultural elites (chosen monarchs) distinguished via their birthrights and territorial inheritance from the earliest period of their burgeoning civilizations. These elites acted as the privileged repositories, guardians and purveyors of knowledge, skills, resources and social justice.
   The validity of such manuscripts formed the basic assumption of the earliest paradigm and although primarily a monastic European phenomenon, it was by no means exclusively so. The written past held real authority across international boundaries. Yet between the years 1500-1700 overly critical methods of analysis (a humanistic genre which Grafton (2012) terms the Ars Historica) severely undermined their authority.

   The first rumblings of discontent with the early-phase paradigm can be traced back to the early 16th century in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Girolamo Fracastoro (1483-1553). Within his notebooks of 1508-1518, Leonardo abandoned many authoritative accounts of a cataclysmic flood when instead he jotted regarding seashells found at high altitude: “Since things are far more ancient than letters, it is not to be wondered at if in our days there exists no record of how the aforesaid seas extended over so many countries” [emphasis mine]. The adequacy of past written records was again radically challenged at a chronological level with the publication of a text called New Work of Correcting Chronology by Joseph Scaliger in 1583. His terse criticism seriously undermined former universal histories: “See what happens when authority is preferred to truth; everyone who reads this thinks it must be true, since it comes from Eusebius” he fumed. A controversial antiquarian named Giovanni Nanni suffered even greater castigation from Scaliger’s quill; yet in reality Scaliger was just one ‘cog’ within a larger continental ‘machine’ of humanists discontented with Moses (c.f. Powell, 2012). Throughout the next three centuries many fields underwent a paradigm shift just as radical as in chronology. In geo-theory for instance, building upon the pioneering work of Nicolaus Steno, later catastrophist theorists such as George Cuvier and William Buckland began to dissociate earth history from human history by advocating multiple localised catastrophes followed by successive acts of creation. Human beings, it was argued, were only present during the last of these diluvian upheavals – whereas the fossilised remains of various extinct mammals found unassociated with any tools indicated they must be from an ‘antediluvian age’ significantly older than humans. Unwittingly, these catastrophists had introduced a ‘fudge factor’ which archaeology would soon explode.

   The biblical ‘West-Asian radiation’ model of human universal history only faced direct criticism, however, when the paradigm crisis in geo-theory had matured. An early sign of disquiet occurred in the year 1655, when Sir William Dugdale in his History of Warwickshire reiterated Michele Mercati’s argument that shaped flints were “weapons used…before the art of making arms of brass or iron was known”. This simplistic association of time period with ‘cognitive sophistication’ introduced the radical and enduring notion of a stone age. This novelty completely up-ended the golden age of humanity recounted by Hesiod and others, which presumed cognitive stasis (even degeneration) in human intellect over time. Within a century, even the greatest authorities were downtrodden in the name of ‘progress’. Jean Astruc’s 1753 treatise on the first book of the Torah (B’resheet) marked the beginning of higher critical methodology as applied to the Judeo-Christian Tanakh. The crisis had finally reached hallowed ground and the special place afforded to humankind was fast evaporating.


   Serious signs that the crisis was boiling over began in the year 1797 with an unorthodox study of the stone ‘hand-axe’ cache of Hoxne in Suffolk by John Frere. He went so far as to suggest that the cache might be significantly older than six thousand years. Similar thoughts were soon entertained by the Danish historian Vedel-Simonsen. In 1813 he claimed that Scandinavian civilization could be divided successively into an age of stone and wood, then an age of copper and finally an age of iron. By 1820 this ‘prehistoric’ scheme was already being used to arrange museum collections in Europe and by 1825 a Catholic priest named John MacEnery was empirically challenging Buckland’s dogged insistence that extinct mammal remains were never to be found associated with human tools. Maintaining a recent West-Asian radiation model began to look increasingly fraught with ad hoc explanations. Buckland’s ‘fudge factor’ had failed.
   This crisis reached a critical point in the year 1859. Further interpretations of axes from the river gravels of the Somme, near Abbeville in France, had allowed British luminaries to correlate these axes with faunal content and geological strata. Striking whilst the iron was hot, Joseph Prestwich presented a paper to the Royal Society and John Evans introduced ‘deep history’ to the Society of Antiquaries (Renfrew, 1976 pg. 23). Their argument for the great antiquity of humans was accepted almost immediately by the British establishment. This had profound ramifications for all subsequent research. As Stringer (2006:18) notes in a tone of jubilation: “The year 1859 was…critical for our understanding of human prehistory. Despite a few waverers and doubters, the tide finally turned in favour of the concept of humans as part of an ancient world inhabited by distinct and extinct faunas, and the floodgates were opening”. At least two weighty tomes, Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863) by Charles Lyell together with Prehistoric Times (1865) by the archaeologist John Lubbock, quickly added nails to the coffin. A slew of archaeological publications founded upon the inherently racist assumptions of social Darwinism followed, so as to swamp serious opposition with empirical examples of ‘lesser stone-age intellect’ among so-called ‘foreign savages’. There was no turning back.


   True to Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) tenets, however, the paradigm shift of mid-19th century archaeology still needed to build momentum before it could dominate both the intellectual and popular landscape. In 1856, Johann Fuhlrott found the bones of what became Homo neanderthalensis in a cave in Germany. Neanderthal people were soon portrayed as dull, hairy, lumbering hunch-backs in the popular press. Later that same century, archaeologists challenged the assumption of Louis Agassiz that there had been just one major ice age. In 1909, Eduard Bruckner and Albrecht Penck set out to show (from glacial mounds of debris) that there had been four distinct ice-ages in the Alps. This idea was superseded by a more complex model of over 20 cycles of ice sheet advances followed by interglacials.  Minor tweaks to the new orthodoxy became a preoccupation of the career-motivated, whereas dissenters lost tenure or were simply ignored.
   A second minor paradigm refinement spanning the 19-20th centuries was the extension and further sub-division of the stone age, initially into two periods: old stone age (palaeolithic) and new stone age (neolithic). The old stone age was once again subdivided into lower, middle and upper periods, the former of which was occupied by early tool-makers millions of years old. Radiocarbon dating, meanwhile, became popular in the 1950’s and gradually led to an isolationist model of cultural origins replacing the biblical (diffusionist) West-Asian radiation model. Then during the 1960s, some of the first tool-makers were tentatively identified with African fossils (from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania) named Homo habilis (handyman) and Homo erectus (upright-man) by Louis and Mary Leakey. Other stone tools such as axes, picks, scrapers, points and flat-edged cleavers were also found in Africa, India and the Near East. These were duly classified into different technological ‘industries’ evolving over hundreds of thousands of years, the empirical evidence being unashamedly manipulated, without fail, into the new ideological framework of deep history.
   In more recent decades, genetic evidences from Allan Wilson and others have appeared to support the ‘recent single origin’ or ‘out of Africa’ hypothesis. This claims that all humans are descended from a single ancestor who lived 100,000 years ago (Oppenheimer, 2004). This is now providing the context for a lively debate about the rise of modern humans.  And so, leaving “prehistory” behind we arrive at the dawn of written history proper with the protoliterate period of Mesopotamia (3750-2900 B.C.) and the dynastic period of Egypt, usually dated 3100 BC in the Early Bronze Age I. Here ancient history may legitimately take up the tale. Or so we are “reliably informed”!


   Many lines of criticism could be levelled at the current paradigm of deep history. Our approach will be to examine just some of the more glaring problems, at the same time showing how they might be better explained through the lens of the original catastrophist paradigm.


   Let us begin, then, by revisiting the first expressions of dissatisfaction with the original paradigm as articulated by Da Vinci. He jotted down that seashells found at high altitude were far more ancient than any written record of an extinction level event large enough to deposit them at such elevation. He also assumed, in the early 16th century, that there wasn’t one such record in existence. Yet in this assumption he was quite mistaken, for laying aside Aristotle’s rare ‘winter flood’ (or kataklysmos) in Meteorologica, since Leonardo’s day many such accounts have now been excavated from ancient royal libraries.
Cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, including tablet 3 of the Epic of Atrahasis, tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh and fragment CBM 13532 from the Temple Library at Nippur all record such a universal cataclysm in remarkable detail (c.f. Cooper, 2011, Chen, 2013, Finkel, 2014). The Egyptian Book of the Dead of Anhai, together with Pyramid texts, Coffin texts and Papyrus Leiden 1350 record the same event under the rubric of the Hermopolitan ‘cosmogony’ (far better understood as a ‘rupture’ and re-population story).
   This ‘cosmogony’ – actually the account of a sacred twin-peaked hill upon which human life was reborn with an ogdoad (or octuplet) of ancestors – could constitute part of a codified “cultural koine”, what Marinatos (2010) defines as an international “vocabulary of sacredness, most of which revolved around the sun”.

These sacred ‘twin-peaks’ appear variously expressed on Egyptian temples, Minoan cylinder seals, tablets, ring impressions and even Babylonian/Akkadian artefacts. Such a koine may extend as far as India and beyond, where in the Hindu Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and Satpatha Brahmana we find written reference to a cataclysm survivor named Manu, together with seven other ‘ancestral sages’. Hundreds of similar accounts are now known globally. In this respect, modern archaeology has substantially corroborated the original paradigm it once operated under, leaving the current paradigm to flounder in culpable silence.

      Another way in which the authority of the past has risen phoenix-like from the ashes is that former claims from antiquarians such as Eusebius and Nanni (neglected since Scaliger and others cast them all in such doubt) are also being substantially corroborated. For instance, ancient long distance trade networks known from these traditions were once considered fabulous. Since 1982, however, the varied cargo of the ship-wreck of Uluburun has proven them perfectly reasonable (as have discoveries like the exotic obsidian and amber minerals found at the Jōmon site of Sannai-maruyama in Japan). Who knows? It is quite possible that neglected accounts spanning the five historic ages of Hesiod may yet precipitate further remarkable finds, akin to the discovery of Homer’s Troy by euhemerists Calvert and Schliemann in the 19th century. The tomb of Sesōstris (the Egyptian Hercules) is one possible avenue of further research. Roman historians such as Pliny believed it to have been built by his famous army upon a circular river island near the city of Lixus in Morocco. Is it mere coincidence then that the largest megalithic stone circle in the world (~1350 B.C.), built in the European style, now stands landlocked just 10 kilometres upriver from Lixus? (c.f. Mavor, 1976:89-122). Ancient records read in the light of 21st century field studies are revealing an accuracy hitherto thought impossible by the challengers of the early paradigm.


   Questions must also be raised over the validity of Mercati and Dugdale’s association of human worked stones with a ‘stone age’ of inchoative hominid intelligence. Obviously, stone is inferior to many materials sourced by humans. However new evidence should give us pause. It is well known, for example, that whilst excavating a trench in Africa, Mary Leakey discovered a circle of stones in Bed 1 of the site Douglas Korongo (DK), at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. It is less well known that she connected this discovery with the Okombambi people of South West Africa, who today build circular shelters of wooden branches by using similar stone walls to hold branches in place (Leakey, 1971:xiii). This was embarrassing because Bed 1 of site DK seemed occupied around 1.75 million years ago – far too early for the paradigm to accommodate modern behaviour! The evidence was consistent with a hut foundation-wall probably built during the Early Bronze IV or even later. Given a lot of head scratching and perspiration it was duly reinterpreted as a natural formation incorporating some bedrock.
   Yet empirical flack remains which the new paradigm cannot hope to absorb, even if we consider a supposedly later campsite such as that found at Bilzingsleben in Thuringia, Germany (Mania et al. 1994). This site, dated to 400,000 before present, was found to contain one circular and two oval concentrations of artefacts, together with large stones and bones which could have been used to build walls. Is it reasonable that humans from the ‘lower old stone-age’, capable of making fire through friction, designing symmetrical tents and carving stone figurines of the goddess Venus, spent some 380,000 years just learning to link stone conurbations into larger cities? Given equal cognitive and aesthetic sophistication apparent in both archaic and modern humans, would not a global maritime civilization have arisen as early as 375,000 years ago within such a scenario? Clearly aware that ‘the Emperor has no clothes’, archaeologists usually fall back on the nebulous argument that climate change, disease, tectonic activity or famine must have retarded the rise of large permanent dwellings for over a million years. Yet what justification is there for this explanation? In short, none at all. If we set Homo erectus (better understood as recent, culturally-isolated aborigines) within the context of their external conditions as navigating pioneers relying on a subsistence-economy, the original paradigm of a West-Asian radiation event in the Early Bronze III appears far more realistic.
   The current paradigm is equally threadbare when one considers stone tool ‘industries’. Returning to Mary Leakey’s faux pas, we find her admitting of the Kanapoi Valley in Northern Kenya: “…the occurrence of an industry restricted to heavy duty tools of Lower Palaeolithic facies associated with pottery and hut circles, is an anomaly hard to explain. It may be noted, however, that a crude form of stone chopper is used in the present time by the more remote Turkana tribesmen in order to break open the nuts of the doum palm” (Leakey, 1966:581). The following observation of Hartwig-Scherer (1991) is most cogent: “There is growing discussion about the extent to which the type of stone tool depends on external conditions… rather than an evolutionary process or the intelligence of the manufacturer. This also accords with studies of peoples today that have stone cultures: Palaeolithic work places can easily be compared with counterparts today, such as in Australia. The type of tool does not allow one to draw conclusions about the manufacturer’s mental capacity.” Stone tools are indeed used today by isolated tribes in the highlands of New Guinea and in Paraguay, South America. They look remarkably similar to their ‘Acheulean’ counterparts. Therefore the simplistic association of time period with cognitive capacity in tool manufacture has failed spectacularly!
   In 1984, Eileen O’Brien noted that large concentrations of hand-axes were to be found in many European river gravels and ancient dry lakes, often associated with exotic mammal bones. Others were found embedded in the earth in situ (point first). This seemed consistent with a hunting-projectile function, perhaps used to distance-kill semi-aquatic fauna such as hippos. Given the investment of time and skill used to work these stones, losing them underwater seemed the best explanation for why such high concentrations were to be found in localised areas. To test this hunting hypothesis, O’Brien had a 2 kilogram precision replica made of a larger specimen. Its aerodynamic properties were examined via professional discus throwers. Statistically, she discovered that when thrown its aerodynamic properties enabled it to land edge-first 90% of the time and point-first 70% of the time, leaving behind deep lesions in the soil. Samson (2006) has since enlarged O’Brien’s dataset and corroborated these results, as has perhaps the rare discovery of a broken Levallois point found deeply embedded in the backbone of a wild ass (Boëda et al. 1999). Such a discovery is consistent with a heavy, high inertia projectile possessing well over 100 joules of impact energy, striking from a parabolic (thrown) trajectory. Considering external conditions, perhaps vast mobile maritime armies of the mid-second millennium B.C. manufactured such weapons from stone since metal ore mining could not cope with their huge demand.
   Even more remarkable has been the discovery of at least 30 of these stone axes at nine different locations along the coast of Crete – prime territory for a lost civilization led by Jupiter Ammon (Strasser et al. 2010, Menzies, 2012). Revealing an obtuse attitude towards the early paradigm, Boston University archaeologist Curtis Runnels expressed shock: “I was flabbergasted, the idea of finding tools from this very early time period on Crete was about as believable as finding an iPod in King Tut’s tomb”. The extent of cognitive dissonance generated by such ‘very early’ tools on Crete is seen in these axes apparently dating to just 130,000 years before present. Were they found only 200 miles away on the continental mainland, we would venture a date almost ten times that age - yet sophisticated watercraft required to reach Crete cannot be admitted this early! Even so, consternation must stem from the vast gap of 125,000 years between these international mariners and their Bronze Age Egyptian, European, Phoenician and Mesopotamian descendants. Moreover, one of the earliest dugout pine-log canoes, found in Holland, dates to only 8200 B.C. Consistent with the external condition of a lack of wood, petroglyphs (stone paintings) and cuneiform tablets record the earliest watercraft of Egypt and Mesopotamia as large complex reed-ships. Realistically, these ancient works of maritime artistry date to the Early Bronze IV period (2200 BC) - not much earlier. Therefore it is patently absurd to suggest that humans capable of art (such as Neanderthals) were navigating oceans for 125,000 years (25 times the length of recorded history) without leaving any discernible evidence. Within no more than 5,000 years, such evidently cultured and capable ocean mariners would have undoubtedly mapped the currents, explored the entire globe, left ample artwork and built vast stone cities comparable to Thebes, Argos and Babylon!


   Considering Neanderthals further to emphasise the extent of this Cretan nightmare, we note that their earlier image as hairy beasts has been transformed so they are now thought of as either humans of great longevity (as found in the Genesis genealogies) or essentially modern humans physiologically adapted to a cold environment. Evidence suggests they ceremonially buried their dead, painted their cave dwellings with considerable talent and also offered flowers as grave offerings. Far more consistent with a global West-Asian radiation event in the Early Bronze III, Trinkaus and Shipman (1993:412) note that the Neanderthals had: “…to the best of our knowledge – the capacity to perform any act normally within the ability of a modern human…[whereas] their bulky trunks and relatively short limbs and digits are designed for conserving metabolic heat in near-arctic conditions”. This perhaps reflects recent archaeological evidence which would place them in caves as far north as the western Ural Mountains near the Arctic Circle. As radiating pioneers braving harsh northern climes with cognitive equality to 21st century humans, Neanderthals can be correctly located within a more recent historical context.


   Merely by focusing upon a few of the most obvious problems within the current paradigm of archaeology in literary-essay style, we have found the whole ramshackle edifice unfit to remain standing much longer. Exciting prospects are therefore on the horizon, since once a paradigm crisis brings about a shift in academia, whole new vistas open up for a subsequent generation to explore and develop in detail. The future of archaeology is bright because it’s highly unlikely the darkness of deep history will overshadow empirical evidence forever. Nevertheless, if you are reading this article thinking that the evolutionary paradigm is far superior, then borrowing a few words from T.S. Eliot, we hope that at the end of all your exploring you will have arrived, full circle, where you started - and “know the place for the first time”.


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